The Magazine


Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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AFFIRMATIVE ACTION seems to be entering a new phase: As the public turns against it, universities are growing increasingly desperate in their support. I teach at Yale, where the administration has made it clear that (in particular) it wants more female professors in technology and the hard sciences. Other universities have the same goal; they have longed for women scientists for years, but their longing seems to have entered a new phase of grim determination. Yale College happens to be heavily armored in foot-thick academic independence, and we have survived a long series of ideological barrages in better shape than we are usually given credit for. But whatever the outcome at this university, the Yale administration is doing the academic world no favor by joining the crowd that has gathered to poke and prod this particular hornets' nest. The approaching hornet swarm is bad news for universities and society in general.

Whether or not you approve of affirmative action, it's clear that certain of its goals can be achieved and others can't. If you are determined, say, to increase the proportion of Hispanics in your undergraduate population, you can probably do it; Hispanic applicants are available. If your goal is a large increase in female science and engineering professors, you can't do it, because the candidates are not available. Wounded ideologues (whose programs have been tried and failed) are the most dangerous kind. We ought to prepare and plan ahead.

To do that, we need to understand why this issue has come up in the first place. It's true that women are scarce in hard sciences and engineering. Why? If anti-woman bigotry were the explanation, we could increase our female-professor count by cutting down on the bigotry. But everyone knows that anti-woman bigotry is not the explanation. The very notion is an Orwellian freedom-is-slavery inversion; pro-woman bias has been the rule in academia for a generation. (Of course affirmative action proponents could define opposition to affirmative action as evidence of anti-woman bias in itself -- but in doing so, they would merely be declaring themselves right by definition.)

The real explanation is obvious: Women are less drawn to science and engineering than men are. (They're also less prone to the intense, cutthroat aggressiveness that usually marks the successful research scientist or engineer.) If you visit the comfortable, typical Connecticut suburb where I live, you can see the big picture in microcosm. The public schools run a summer program for children. Our older boy has spent a couple of weeks during each of the past several summers in a Lego-and-computers course. At the end of each session, students show off their accomplishments; I've never encountered one girl at any of these performances. Scientists and engineers are mainly grown-up versions of Lego-and-computers children. If you believe the Bigotry Theory, you must also believe that bigotry explains the scarcity of girls in our local Lego-and-computers group. If you believe that -- that our tony, Democratic suburb is biased against little girls -- then you'll believe anything.

In recent years, affirmative action pushers have been less inclined to accuse people of bigotry -- perhaps because they know the accusation is insulting and false. Nowadays affirmative action is mainly justified by the need for "diversity"; we can't be a society where nearly all the engineering and hard science professors are male, because -- we just can't. It's true that all professional football players are male, but that's different. Football is important; we can't force weak players on the NFL merely for ideological reasons. The public wouldn't stand for it. But in low-profile, unimportant areas such as physics, the public doesn't care much about the players, and ideologues have a free hand.

Honorable people have put forward the "diversity" argument, but consider what this argument implies. If women aren't being kept out of science by force, they must be choosing not to enter, presumably because they don't want to; presumably because (by and large) they don't like these fields or (on average) don't tend to excel in them, which is nearly the same thing. Yet diversity promoters have decreed that, nonetheless, more women shall enter engineering and science. Their attitude is either patronizing or bullying.